A-Pirate Hunting We Go?

Bad-guy commentary is too easy, limits public discourse

Spike TV is really happy it has a pirate show in the works. After the dramatic rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates, here’s what its producer, a guy named Adam Friedman, said to Washington Post TV columnist Lisa de Moraes: “Let’s face it … it’s a win-win for everyone. It’s one thing to say we’re going into Iraq, and killing women and children sometimes, unfortunately. But with pirates it’s a clear black-and-white thing. They’re the bad guys.”

You might be pressed to dismiss his crude comment as mercenary Hollywood talk. After all, Friedman is referring to a proposed reality series, Pirate Hunters: USN, in which the U.S. Navy would hunt down pirates. (De Moraes reports that Friedman’s other producing credits include A&E’s Air Combat and The History Channel’s Masters of War.)

But it also underscores the type of black-and-white coverage that the press should try to avoid in situations like these, and to which it sometimes succumbed. Pirates = bad, U.S. Navy = good is not a particularly nuanced frame within which to explore the reasons for Somali piracy, which, as has been reported, stems from the fact that Somalia is a failed, corrupt, impoverished state (without a properly functioning government since 1991) that has no means of protecting its 1,879-mile-long coastline. Its piracy problem started as a form of vigilantism and survival as foreign fishing boats overtook the coastal waters. Most pirate attacks in the area have ended peacefully, in part because shipping conglomerates can afford to pay out the occasional ransom or toll (and have been known to deal smoothly with a hostage situation, as this account illustrates). Piracy is a serious and fast-increasing problem, but there is nothing to be gained by one-dimensional portrayals.

And yet, we get lines like this one from Jonah Goldberg, writing in a frustrating column for the Los Angeles Times yesterday, “Well, that was simple. Shoot the pirates, problem solved.” Sounds like a video game well played.

Goldberg goes on to make the point that “it was clear the media and public thought there was something charmingly exotic about all this pirate talk” and uses that to build a pop culture argument wherein pirates have become adorable Johnny Depp-type characters. Further, he argues that even if we were to get over our love of cinematic swashbucklers, we run into a different problem: “generations of ‘don’t blame the victim’ talk has made us sympathetic to criminals, particularly Third World ones.”

Now, it’s true that the New York Post, for instance, managed to gleefully label the pirates “young bucs” and “wild teens” in the same breath; this story was, in some sense, made for the tabloids. (Even the NYT described it as “an episode that at times seemed ripped from the pages of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel.”) And Jason Zengerle at The New Republic dubbed detailed descriptions of the shootout “sniper porn.”

That type of coverage certainly fans the flames of the high sea fantasy. But Goldberg’s conclusion—that the tenor of the conversation is too mushy on the pirates, that we should pick them off one by one (i.e. “mak[e] it easier to shoot even more pirates”)—is too one-sided to tell the whole story, and, well, about as helpful as the instructions for playing Counter-Strike. Looking at the problem from a we-just-have-to-take-them-out point of view fails to address the root of the escalating problem—which expert consensus says is on land.

Also misguided is the impulse to lump pirates and terrorists together, as Bill Kristol did yesterday on FOX’s Special Report with Bret Baier, stating that if “these so called pirates” “had an accident due to a cruise missile or due to a predator, or just due to a bomb, that would be a healthy thing, I think, for the pirates,” and making the comparison that “we are killing people in the wild lands of Pakistan who are terrorists.” (Howard Kurtz went there as well, writing yesterday, “it became more clear that these were armed terrorists – small time, to be sure, but terrorists nonetheless.”) Once you assign a label, though, it tends to stick, a fact that an AP analysis story touched on: “it’s notable that in an administration that has for all intents and purposes banned the phrase ‘war on terror,’ no one called the pirates ‘terrorists.’” Well, that’s because these pirates aren’t systematically using terror for a political end. They want money. If they’re terrorists, then so was John Dillinger.

The problem with these examples—from Goldberg’s seeming desire to pick-em-off-one-by-one (uh, shooting pirates to solve piracy?) to Kristol’s too-easy Pakistan comparison—is that they push wholesale the good-bad rhetoric that is so limiting to the public discourse. This sort of bellicose, overly blunt rhetoric also suggests that there is an easy solution when it is rather clear that there isn’t one. Senator Russ Feingold may with the best of intentions call for a comprehensive strategy to shore up Somalia’s new transitional government, and others may call for a more coordinated response on the seas, but it’s clear that only some combination of efforts will prevail.

Obama’s understated but decisive response, played in the press as both a political and military victory, offers guidelines for the organization of future responses, and it doesn’t look like it’ll be the antagonistic “pirate hunters” storyline to which Goldberg and Kristol seem so attached. Luckily for them, they can soon just watch the reality show.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.